Interview with Marcy Sheiner

Published 2013-09-19.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up all around New York State: the Bronx, Queens, Long Island, Woodstock, Manhattan. I'm not sure how New York influenced my writing; I wonder how anyone can ever be sure of something like that? How would you know if something about yourself was influenced by geography rather than genetics or religion, astrology or family? I do know that being a New Yorker influenced who I am as a person. I didn't even know I had a strong New York identity though until I moved to California when I was 45. Californians constantly made comments on my "honesty," with surprise or admiration, and I realized it was a trait common to most of us back East. Some Californians refer to it as being open; other times I'm called direct, or straightforward--and then sometimes negative, aggressive or loud-mouthed. My neighbors once yelled at me for making noise during a Yankee baseball game on Opening Day of the season. Now I ask you: would they do such a thing in New York? They would not.
When did you first start writing?
I'm not sure when I wrote my first piece of writing, but in fifth grade I changed the lyrics of the song "16 Tons,” to what I don’t remember, and my teacher loved it so much she took me around to all the fifth grade classes to sing it. It was my first lesson in the difference between the act of writing and the drain of self-promotion. My next writing memory is from high school, when my English teacher, I was told, read one of my essays out loud to whoever was around while he was grading our papers.
I wrote the first of five novels in my late 20's.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I think my first story was "Of All Sad Words of Tongue or Pen." I confess I'm embarrassed by the title, and probably by the story as well. Before that I'd been fooling around writing character studies, essays and half-stories for years, but this was the first story I completed. It was based on real events at a time when my life was changing. Looking back, I think I was inordinately hopeful about my future as a writer. I stayed that way for a long time, naively expecting to make a decent living writing fiction. By the time I woke up it was too late to learn to do something else, so here I am, still writing.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
Reading. Listening to podcasts or baseball games. Doing crossword puzzles. Walking while listening to music on my iPod. Hanging out with my grown son. Cooking. Watching movies. On good days, trying not to smoke / on bad days, wandering the city streets grubbing cigarettes.
What is your writing process?
I almost always write in the morning, when my head is clear and my energy level high. I write first drafts quickly, as if I’m vomiting on the page. I just pour it all out. The rewrites are a lot slower, and I could go on with them forever. Revision is my favorite part of the process: it's not scary like first draft writing; having something to work with, something to hang onto, gives me a sense of security. During the revision process I frequently do a lot of new writing as well--but I've fooled myself with this attitude that it's all a downhill coast now, only tweaks and rearrangements, so I go to work with excitement and enthusiasm rather than the terror of the blank page.
Who are your favorite authors?
Number One, always and forever, is Doris Lessing. She is a visionary and my literary guru.
I read everything Marge Piercy writes, for substance more than style. Nobody else writes the stuff she writes about.
I also like Larry McMurtry, TC Boyle, and a lot of Indian writers, male and female.
Lately I've been reading the classics; I just reread all of Jane Austen. Then I discovered Edith Wharton and fell in love with her writing. The House of Mirth knocked me out; I plan to read more of her books. By the way, any books over 100 years old are in the public domain and are free on Amazon for the Kindle.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Tough question, but I'll try to meet the challenge.

1. The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing. The final in Lessing’s five-book Bildungsroman, Children of Violence, which traces Martha Quest’s life from her childhood in Africa into the future. The Four-Gated City opens in London where Martha has come to live, and follows her into a post-apocalyptic future. This book is the bridge between Lessing’s realistic fiction and what she calls her “space fiction.” She employs a broad social canvas and follows several generations. A key element of the plot is the subject of mental insanity; Lessing presents the point of view that some of those who society deems insane are often visionaries and psychics. Published in 1969, FGC was ahead of its time.

2. Shikasta: Canopus in Argos: Archives by Doris Lessing. This is Lessing’s next published book after FGC, and comprises Book 1 of her journey into space. Shikasta reads as if the author has taken her consciousness on a trip to the far reaches of the universe, looked back down at Planet Earth, and wrote what she saw. Consequently, it’s like a bible written in the language of Lessingese.

3. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. A detailed story of Indian life, history and culture; the balance in the title is that between human misery and redemption. Some of the horrible things Mistry writes about are hard to take, but redemption ends up stronger for the human bonds among the main characters. Although I read this something like ten years ago, the characters and plot remain vivid in my memory. I would love to re-read it. (Sigh: so many books, so little time.)

4. 3-Way Tie: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; and My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. I have to group these three books together because I love them all for much the same reasons. Not only are they page-turners, they give me hope that books really can have an impact on social conditions; all of them expose social ills, and led to governmental regulation of various industries. Most tangibly, publication of The Jungle led to the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that sets standards for meat sold to consumers.

5. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. I can’t pinpoint what it is I love about this book, especially since it’s an unusual genre for me: a western adventure with male sensibilities. Maybe it’s because McMurtry writes so visually, I’ve imagined painting some of the scenes (though I do not paint). Or maybe it’s because the writing is all heart. I’ve read it twice and saw the mini-series three times.

6. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton. I have to include an extra, since I only just read this book, and I don’t know for certain if it’s going to remain on my best-loved list. Although it was written c. 1925 and takes place around then, I identified with the main character and related to her problems. Reading it was an intense emotional experience. If it stays on this list I don’t know which book I will remove! As I said, so many books, so little time. It panics me. I can’t die, I have too many books yet to read.
What do you read for pleasure?
That's simple: Novels. I read non-fiction, but it's not as pleasurable to me as fiction. If I don't like a book by Page 50, I stop reading it. Life's too short to read bad books, and I've been known to fling them against walls, once even on an airplane (The Horse Whisperer).
What is your e-reading device of choice?
The Kindle. I haven't tried anything else, I'm satisfied with this. What I like best is the ease of reading while eating. Since I live alone, I read at mealtimes, and I used to have to put rocks on the pages, especially paperbacks, to keep them open in front of me. No such problems with the Kindle. I still love books, but lately I've been reading ones that are in the public domain, since they’re free for Kindle.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
I am a terrible book marketer, and I couldn't tell you what's been effective because I haven't done enough. (I'm so ashamed of myself.)
What are you working on next?
I'm currently working on a Young Adult novella. It's the first YA fiction I've ever attempted, and I'm enjoying it immensely. I don't know if the intended audience is going to like it, but it hasn't been at all difficult for me to find my own younger voice. While I don't remember events of that time in my life very clearly, I can easily access my emotions as a teenager, and they're quite vivid.
I'm on the second revision, and hope to have it ready for publication by early 2014.
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